Imagine waltzing with someone who is 1,000 miles away. Or watching a ballet with no dancers at all, where wisps of light form the illusion of dancers performing. You are not dreaming. At places like Arizona State University (ASU), the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW), and Texas Christian University (TCU), dancers are using computers and other multimedia technology to do that and more. "Dance has always existed within the context of society," says John Mitchell, ASU dance department faculty member. "As society changes, it reframes dance. Today, dance is framed by the technology that surrounds us."
At ASU, dancers are certainly surrounded by technology. All dance majors are required to take a class to become familiar with professional-level creative design tools. They click away at software like Flash, Final Cut Pro, and Photoshop to produce head shots, videos, and resumes on DVD. The dance department's Multimedia Learning Center is equipped with eight Macintosh G4 computers to help students compose sound scores for their choreography and build Web sites for the purpose of putting their resumes online.
In 1983, Dr. Judith Gray, then assistant professor of dance at UW, organized the first UW Dance and Technology Conference so that dancers throughout the country who were beginning to work with technology could share information. In her book Dance Instruction: Science Applied to the Art of Movement (1989), Gray coined a word to describe one effect of technology: "`Illusionism' ... is defined as realism protracted to a point where the real and the non-real are indistinguishable," she wrote. "Ilusionism will be a movement style that aims to confuse the observer as to whether what is seen is object or artifice." Gray, now on the faculty of Antioch University in Seattle, says, "I believe that dance audiences are ready for such an innovation, including the philosophical discourse and choreographic challenges that accompany such a revolution."
Ready or not, illusionism is becoming a reality. Today we see dance not only on the concert stage but also in music videos, commercials, movies, and video games, where animated characters dance in worlds that can only exist on the screen. And at universities across the country, dance technologists are researching dance performances of the future.
MFA students at ASU, for example, have access to real-time, three-dimensional motion-capture facilities. Dancers wear special suits with small reflector balls aligned to every joint of their bodies so that infrared sensors located around the space can record their exact movement into a computer. This data can be used to manipulate "cyber-humans" in virtual spaces, in order to apply authentic movement quality to animated characters in movies, commercials, and video games.
At UW, a black box performance space is wired with a slew of networked equipment: video monitors, mixers, cameras, projection screens, PA systems, and microphones. It's a malleable space where UW dancers collaborate with other dancers on similarly equipped stages at the University of California--Irvine, the University of Utah, Ohio State University, ASU, and others in simultaneous performances via the Internet. Choreographers use Max/MSP software to control motion- and sound-sensing switches that are placed in and around "intelligent stages." As the dancers move, they trigger lights, sound, or other effects on both their local stage and in the remote spaces. The dancers respond to the triggered effects and thus explore the human connections now possible between dancers who are thousands of miles apart.
ASU graduate student Nancy Happel is grappling with the question of how dance companies might pay for such an "intelligent space" when they often barely have money to pay dancers. Happel's graduate thesis will be a manual on the use of free software to create low-budget telematic performances, something she calls "guerrilla telematics."
Telematics, she explains, is a Web cast made by placing a video conference call between two or more dance performances, so that dancers in those locations can react to each other's video projection and, thus, dance together. The performance is viewed by audiences at all locations, but each gets a different experience and perspective. At one location, it may appear that the real and projected dancers are moving together, while at another, they may be dancing in canon because of lag time, the delay inherent in current video-conferencing technology.
Guerrilla telematics will still cost money, but Happel's goal is to keep the budget comparable to what a dance company already pays for sets and lighting. By making it affordable, she hopes this technology will be explored by the dance world at large, not just by universities.
Much has happened since Dr. Gray's first dance and technology festival, including the advent of data streams, bandwidth, digital sensors, Macintosh G4 computers, and DVDs. But why should a dancer bother with all this? Dancing requires years of intense focus and training just to develop technical excellence in one's own body. Should dancers now expect to become proficient on computers as well?
Dr. Keitha Donnelly Manning, from the department of ballet and modern dance at TCU, says software tools, such as Life Forms, can help economically by allowing a choreographer to create and edit movement sequences on a computer prior to assembling a group of dancers. "Studio time is limited and expensive. The more you can do on the computer beforehand, the better," she says. At the same time she emphasizes that she doesn't believe the computer replaces the physicality of dance. The multimedia classroom that Manning helped design at TCU includes a dance floor as well as fifteen computers, so that choreographers can easily go back and forth between developing movement in their bodies and on the screen.
Computer technology can save choreographers time and money and help dancers compete for jobs and funding. But when does technology support the art and when does it detract from it?
"Every art form changes because of changes in the culture," says Joe Koykkar, coordinator of the UW Interarts and Technology Program, "and this is a driving factor in why dancers and choreographers are looking at technology today. Technology allows people to experience the arts in ways that they couldn't twenty years ago. The performing arts flourish when artists integrate what is happening in the culture at large."
But the question remains: Are we simply adding unneeded gadgetry to the arts? "Sometimes," Koykkar admits. "The boundaries are still being discovered." It is far too early to predict how technology will ultimately affect the art of dance, just as we couldn't know in 1920 that radio would point the way to electronic music. Before we can know exactly where all this is leading, Koykkar suggests that we'll have to wait for the technology and artists to fully develop.
Eric Wolfram is an emerging digital filmmaker. He started and operated a successful technology business and danced professionally for nine years.